Margaret Keelan's Intimate and Universal Stories

By Coon, Cheryl | Ceramics Art & Perception, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Margaret Keelan's Intimate and Universal Stories


Coon, Cheryl, Ceramics Art & Perception


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WHERE? THE ENIGMATIC QUESTIONS THAT INFUSE the work of Margaret Keelan, invite the viewer on a journey of self-reflection and discovery. Her series of figurative doll sculptures investigates our mortality, and issues of innocence, beauty, ageing and decay. The figures act as guides, interpreters, questioners, and each viewer must then complete the riddle from his or her own personal experience.

The work is evocative, creating a sense of nostalgia or perhaps darker childhood memories. The sculptures have a poetic phrasing, using hints and intimations that indicate layers of meaning, however the narrative is never overt. In some cases the story may possess innocence and longing, in other cases there may be a more sordid scenario. One of the strengths of this series is its ambiguity and openness, leaving room for interpretation. The sculpture becomes an object of thoughtful contemplation or a vessel for memories.

The most recent sculptures reference 19th century dolls and the Santos figures of Mexico and Central America. The faces are reminiscent of colonial times, and at first they appear familiar, disconnected and ageless. However, the startling realisation that these figures are made with clay that has been meticulously worked to create the illusion of decaying wood, disintegrating and peeling paint, pushes the work beyond mere representation. The skin-like malleability of the clay has been stained and manipulated to show all the scars and scratches and gouges. The sculptures appear to have been excavated, but not restored to any previous state of pristine beauty. They reveal their raw, exposed and broken selves.

These are not the uber-perfect dolls that are given out to young girls; they are metaphors for the transformations that we undergo as we age. In childhood, dolls are playthings, and they either inspire acts of nurturing or suffer acts of torture. Dolls by their nature Where? 2006. Clay, glaze, stains. 61 x 15 x 15 cm. are containers for intimate secrets, absorbing and reflecting all of the angst of growing up. Keelan's figures reveal the process of ageing, becoming wise in the decaying surfaces of the sculptures: the hair is mussed and chopped or missing altogether; the lips show traces of chipped lipstick, and the eyes focus inward.

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Many of Keelan's pieces have a strong spiritual component. After the death of her mentor and friend Marilyn Levine, Keelan created a series of figures that explored the transitory nature of death and questioned the existence of the soul. "Where?" is the question incised into the forehead of one of these figures. The doll's head is an empty shell, inviting us to contemplate its fragile hollow space. Where did the essence go? Did it contain a soul? What is it that makes us who we are? Her hands are held up with the palms open, in a gesture that could be an inquiry, or a prayer or a pushing away of something unknown. The gesture is strangely vulnerable and graceful, reminiscent of ancient Thai sculptures where the upheld hands act as a conduit for the divine.

As a young artist, Keelan was involved in a dynamic confluence of ceramic arts at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. It was there that she first met Marilyn Levine as well as many other prominent Canadian and Californian ceramic artists. Keelan later went on to receive her Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Utah, where Levine taught. Levine's ceramic work is indirectly figurative in that she created realistic personal objects--such as leather jackets or leather shoes--that retained the character and the body presence of the person who had originally worn the object. Her ability to create these wizened leather objects so realistically was an inspiration to Keelan who realised the potential for clay to depict a materiality other than itself. Keelan later moved to the San Francisco Bay Area because of the strong ceramic community that included Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson, Robert Brady and Stephen De Staelber. …

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